Friday, 25 May 2012

The rise and fall (and resurrection?) of the Aurochs

Skeleton of an Aurochs
With the extinction of the mammoth and straight-tusked elephants of Europe only two really large bodied herbivores remained, the Wisent or European Bison (Bison bonasus) and the Aurochs Bos primigenius. Although Wisent reached the coast of France just as the climate warmed, they apparently never occurred in Britain in post-glacial times and the few thousand individuals surviving today have a distinctly southern and eastern distribution. For most of Europe the role of top herbivore was played by the Aurochs.

Aurochs were massive animals, with large bulls standing 1.8m or more at the shoulder and possibly reaching 1 tonne in weight. Accounts of the last surviving pure Aurochs from 16th century Poland describe an animal that was more placid than one might expect, but could be agile, fast, and very dangerous if annoyed. They seem to have preferred wetland habitats, probably because of the lusher grazing their large bodies required, and in fact one old name translates as ‘marsh walker’.

Although Aurochs were hunted by Mesolithic peoples, the numbers taken would not have threatened the species survival in the UK, as people were thin on the ground – estimates for the total worldwide population of humanity range from 5 to 20 million across the whole planet, so the number in the British isles were probably no more than 10,000 at any one time, probably much less. In any event, Red and Roe Deer were probably more favoured prey as they were easier (and safer) to catch.

Bull on left, cow on right
However, around 5000 BC things changed. The first Neolithic farmers arrived, probably in the South East, and began clearing the forest where the Aurochs took shelter, especially in the winter. More importantly, they brought with them their own cattle. These were basically domesticated Aurochs, but their ancestors were the Middle eastern sub species – some recent genetic studies indicate they were domesticated in Iran around the time agriculture was invented. These domestic cattle competed with the wild cattle for food and were protected from Wolves and Bears (the only predators aside from people Aurochs had to worry about) and the species went into a terminal decline. The same story was repeated on mainland Europe, and the last Aurochs died in Poland in the 16th century.

There the story would have rested, until in the early 20th century a pair of German zoo directors called Heinz and Lutz heck conceived a plan to resurrect the Aurochs. From descriptions of the last survivors, they attempted to use selective breeding from various primitive breeds to create a Mark II Aurochs that combined these traits, which they believed derived from interbreeding between domestic cattle and Aurochs before the Aurochs died out. They did in fact succeed in producing an animal which at least looked a bit like an Aurochs, and the breed survives to this day. There is however a sting in this tale. The Heck brothers were enthusiastic Nazis, and Lutz took part in the demolition of Warsaw Zoo (many animals were stolen and taken back to Germany). In addition, it is pretty generally agreed that the results of their efforts are different in many respects from the true Aurochs (they are smaller and much more heavily built for one thing), so although Heck cattle are sometimes used as grazing animals in habitat restoration projects, they are basically a rather embarrassing historical relic.

Heck bull
Another, more interesting historical relic however exists in England at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. The castle has a very large park which has been enclosed since the 13th century, and in the grounds live a herd of wild cattle. They have a very distinctive appearance – pure white with red ears – and live a completely wild existence. Their origins are obscure, but they may be descended from special sacrificial animals from pre-Roman times, or simply feral Medieval cattle. Either way, their behaviour may give some insight into how wild Aurochs behaved.

Some of the Chillingham herd
Bulls are solitary, and fight viciously (often to the death) with other bulls. Females too can be aggressive with each other, and although they live longer than bulls the typical lifespan is around 15 years. For the first few days after calving the calf is hidden away in cover, with the mother returning twice a day to feed it. Once the calf is strong enough it follows its mother back to the herd. Although they are tough animals, hard winters can cause heavy mortality, and in 1947 there were only 13. Today there are around 100, with another 20 at another site. Calves are born all year round, but in recent years there have been more in winter, probably a result of warmer springs enabling cows to come into breeding condition earlier.

The case of the Chillingham cattle is a good example of the issues that can arise with what is now called ‘rewilding’ – the restoration of habitats by reintroducing various large mammals, both herbivores and carnivores. Is it actually necessary to recreate a look-alike of an extinct wild relative of a domestic animal, when its domesticated descendants will have exactly the same ecological affect? Does re-wilding have anything to do with actual conservation, or is it rather an aesthetic choice by urban man? Also, if this re-wilded landscape is a human creation, is it actually wild?

So what do you think?
Next week, I will be at the Bath and West Show – see you there!

(images from wikipedia)

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